Jun 16, 2011

If the Fitzwalkerstans were truly conservative

In the not-too-distant past, self-proclaimed conservatives frequently referenced with admiration Russell Kirk's 1953 opus, The Conservative Mind. The book is widely regarded as helping to spawn the modern American conservative movement.

In the book, Kirk honored 18th-century English Tory Edmund Burke as the hero of conservative thought. Burke argued — most famously in his political tract Reflections on the Revolution in France — that the customs of a people were more trustworthy than the abstract ideals of a person or a group of persons. Ideals become ideologies when conceived entirely in a person's mind, unrelated to a society's experiences and habits. Burke predicted accurately that the French Revolution, rooted entirely in abstract reason and sweeping away generations of custom, would end in violence and dictatorship.

Bringing Burke into the 20th century, Kirk proclaimed in The Conservative Mind that ideology is the enemy of conservatism. Ideology imposes; conservatism conserves. Reform works best when it's connected to a society's customs. Disconnected from those customs, reform is radical, revolutionary and bound to fail.

Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers call themselves conservative. Nonsense. They're as radical as they can be. They believe the abstract ideals of a few think tanks — Heritage Foundation, Club for Growth, ALEC — are more trustworthy than the long-practiced customs of Wisconsin's people.

If the Fitzwalkerstans were truly conservative, they would never have swept away by legislative fiat more than a half-century tradition of strong public unions and respect for public workers.

If the Fitzwalkerstans were truly conservative, they would never have proposed slashing more than $800 million from K-12 schools plus $250 million from the UW system in a state with Wisconsin's tradition of support for public education.

If the Fitzwalkerstans were truly conservative, they would never have proposed balancing the budget by requiring "shared sacrifice" only among the poor and middle class in a state with Wisconsin's history of robust public goods and services.

If the Fitzwalkerstans were truly conservative, they would never have proposed killing a host of environmental protections and policies in a state with Wisconsin's long tradition of conservation.

Nobody expects Walker and the Fitzgeralds to be Democrats. But if they were truly conservative, they would fight hard for an agenda that applies their values in a way that respects Wisconsin's customs. Instead, they seek to impose upon Wisconsin abstract ideologies advanced by ultra-right think tanks funded by ultra-right donors.

The result? Huge protests, recall elections, feuds and bad blood all around. And it all could have been avoided, if only the Fitzwalkerstans were truly conservative.

Rings true to me. And you?

May 22, 2011

A more reasonable faith

We don't have a tax problem; we have a spending problem.
—Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Eric Cantor et al

Today's ultra-conservative Republicans believe taxes are of the devil. This is an article of faith, undoubted and unchallenged. It was not always thus.

During the post-WWII consensus, Republicans as well as Democrats regarded taxes as the price for civilization — and progressive taxation as the best way to pay for the civilization the public wanted.

For seven of Eisenhower's eight years in the White House, the top marginal tax rate was 91% on income over $3 million in today's money (the first year, 92%). When Nixon took office, the top rate was 77% on income over $1.2 million. The last year of Ford's term, it was 70% on income over $750,000.

But by 1980, the post-WWII consensus was out of gas. Stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis, the oil crisis and Carter's apparent ineptitude to solve any of these big problems contributed to a public bad mood. Enter the Reagan Revolution.

With clarity, relevance and evangelistic fervor, Reagan and his acolytes preached a popularized supply-side economics to a public thirsty for a new faith. Focus on those who produce, not "welfare queens" who merely consume. Cut taxes and remove regulations from businesses. The supply of goods and services will explode, lowering prices. The ensuing economic activity will create jobs and increase federal tax revenues. All gain, no pain.

Fast forward 30 years. Like the post-WWII consensus before it, supply-side doctrine is out of gas. It can no longer explain on its own terms its real-world effects: massive deficits, crushing federal debt and business malfeasance that pumps oil into the Gulf of Mexico, nearly destroys an entire world's economy and kills 29 miners.

But received dogmas die hard. Those reared in the Reaganite supply-side faith are loathe to express doubt even in the face of devastating counter-evidence. Thus the truly nonsensical and oft-heard sermon that federal deficits and debt stem merely from over-spending and not also from under-taxing.

Yes, we have a spending problem. And yes, we have a tax problem. If we are to fix our problems, we'll have to reject supply-side dogma for a more reasonable faith: one that balances free enterprise, fair play and fiscal realism. One that pays for the civilization we want and envisions a civilization we can pay for.

Rings true to me. And you?

May 3, 2011

Why do we celebrate a killing?

I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

I live in Madison, WI, where the center of gravitas is very progressive. This is new for me. Though I grew up in the Midwest, I spent most of my adult life in the South, Madison's political mirror image.

I'd wager a body part that most of my friends in Atlanta and Orlando were pleased with the news of Osama Bin Laden's killing. Some might have groused minimally over who gave the order; they would have preferred Bush. But I doubt very much that any spent a nano-second hand-wringing over America sending in soldiers to shoot the man dead. This was a government program they heartily supported.

And my Madison friends? A very different story. Many posted on Facebook or tweeted an abbreviated version of the above quotation, mistakenly attributed to Martin Luther King but reflecting his nonviolent ideals.

Along with the ersatz quote, people posted their sentiments. They were uncomfortable with the reaction that spontaneously erupted across the country. Celebrating a killing just seemed, well, unseemly.

I understand this sentiment. It flows from a love of fair play for all people that I share, making me more comfortable politically in my adopted home than in the South. But I think my progressive friends have missed something crucial in this event — something that makes me OK with the whooping, hollering, and high-fiving.

Americans aren't celebrating a killing; they're celebrating justice.

Some wrongs are so wrong that they cry out in our hearts to be made right. Mass murder — especially massive mass murder — is one of these wrongs. If this were 1943 and a team of GIs had successfully assassinated Hitler, our celebration would have been similar — and similarly fitting.

Does this solve all the problems? Of course not. Justice is like beauty. All people long for it. But its content is fuzzy, person-relative, and culturally communicated. What's just to us is part of the story that is ours, rooted in our experience, forming our beliefs, spawning our actions.

But that doesn't make it nothing. That just makes it human.

Can a celebration of justice turn to bloodlust? Sure. Granted, the line between them is impossible to draw with certainty. But that doesn't mean there is no line.

Can one argue that our idea of justice is no better than Bin Laden's? Sure, though I'm unembarrassed proclaiming that the mass murder of innocents is universally unjust.

But quibbling over what constitutes justice is beside the point. Whether you think Bin Laden's killing was just or not, that's what Americans spontaneously celebrated. Justice. Not the killing itself, which was incidental.

I for one can't fault people's natural, deep desire for justice — and their explosion of joy when they believed it was served.

Rings true to me. And you?

Apr 27, 2011

It's 'cause he's black.

There's no longer any doubt. The reason people oppose Obama on such unreasonable grounds is his race. He's black, and people just can't wrap their minds around a black man being the president of the United States.

Those screams you hear are my Facebook friends from the South, where I spent most of my adult life. They aren't reading this sentence, as they just switched to Facebook to defriend me. Whatev. For those of you willing to read on, here's what makes me certain:

When I was earning a master's degree in communication, I had to write a paper about framing, priming and schema. These are topics in mass comm studies about the relationship between media presentation of stories and our interpretation of them.

While doing research for the paper, I ran across a 2008 study in the journal Political Psychology by Dr. Kimberly Gross of George Washington University on the effects of media framing on emotion and public opinion (you can read it here if you wish).

The study conducted an experiment. One group of students received a packet of materials about mandatory minimum sentencing that included an initial 550-word article about a "single, white mother in her 20s" sentenced to a 25-year, no-parole, mandatory minimum sentence for conspiring to assist her abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend in his cocaine trade.

A second group received a packet identical to the first with one exception: The initial article described the woman in the story as a "single, black mother in her 20s."

One word out of thousands. Only the initial article in each packet referred to race and only in the one sentence.

The result?

Students in the first group felt sympathy for the white woman. Because her circumstances were so harsh, they felt she was treated unjustly. So much so that their opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing significantly increased.

Students in the second group felt no sympathy for the black woman. She was responsible for her circumstances, so justice was served. Their views on mandatory minimum sentencing remained unchanged.

Wow. This study was published in 2008, not 1958. And these were college students — hardly a group of ultra-right crypto-racists. Clearly, some storyline way, way deep in our mental "schema" — to use the positivist parlance of quantitative communication studies — tells us that blacks get what they deserve. And they don't deserve a break.

Enter the birthers. Obama doesn't deserve one jot or tittle of trust. Born in Hawaii? Prove it. Released your birth certificate? Probably a fake. Your social security number? It's a problem. You went to Harvard? You didn't deserve it. You get no break from us, buster. You're black.

Rings true to me, unfortunately. And you?

Apr 26, 2011

Taxpayers vs. public workers — a bogus conflict.

Sometimes a storyline is communicated by a single word. Like taxpayers — a word that Governor Walker and other Republicans seem especially fond of lately.

"[Protesters'] voices cannot drown out the voices of the countless taxpayers who want us to balance our budgets," wrote Gov. Walker in the Wall Street Journal (emphasis mine, here and throughout).

"The system is broken. It costs taxpayers serious money," he said in his Feb. 22 TV address — the so-called fireside chat.

Also from that address: "As more and more protesters come in from Nevada, Chicago and elsewhere, I am not going to allow their voices to overwhelm the voices of the millions of taxpayers from across the state who think we're doing the right thing."

Embedded in Walker's remarks is a narrative of sector conflict. Private and public sectors are against each other, and the private needs protection.

The private sector produces, this story goes. It's made up of heroic entrepreneurs, who create jobs and drive the economy forward. It's independent from the public sector. It's the real world, the sphere where free people freely take the risks that advance progress and enhance the quality of life. It comes first.

In contrast, the public sector doesn't produce. It doesn't create a single job. It exists solely to serve the private sector and is therefore secondary, even subservient.

But public-sector unions have thrown the relationship out of whack, the story continues. Through collective bargaining, they've wielded power not befitting their position, securing bloated benefits and inordinate job security for public workers. So now it's time to protect taxpayers and put public servants back in their rightful place.

Ugh. Though frequently referenced by today's Republican leaders, this sector-conflict storyline is totally bogus. The truth is that the two sectors are equally essential, mutually dependent and beautifully complementary when allowed to be so.

The public sector provides the context enabling private action to take place. Without the public sector, there would be no consumers sufficiently educated to read about or pay for the private sectors' goods and services. No courts to adjudicate contract disputes. No laws or law enforcers to ensure commercial transport by land, sea, or air. No firefighters to save commercial buildings and equipment. No environmental protections to ensure safe drinking water and clean air. No military force to protect our borders and way of life from invaders.

Without those things, the private sector as we know it would not, could not exist. The impulse to succeed, to compete, to win would be unchecked by rules ensuring fairness and mitigating against harm.

Such a world exists. And not just in the fantasies of Ayn Rand and her current influential followers. You can watch it nightly on NatGeo. It's the world of the animal kingdom, where only the strongest and luckiest win, and it's winner take all. The jungle, the Serengeti and the deep blue sea are free from bureaucrats and their pesky rules.

I prefer civilization. And that's what the public sector provides. Public workers depend on taxpayers as much as taxpayers depend on public workers. No more, no less.

Away with this bogus conflict! We in both sectors are in this drama together, playing different but equal roles in the struggle to create the best world and live the best lives we can.

Rings true to me. And you?

Mar 9, 2011

Frank and Sandy in the breakroom — free enterprise vs. fair play

"Can you believe those protesters?" Frank snarls while pouring a cup of coffee at the company breakroom. "What a bunch of losers."

Frank is a marketing manager at Welltrack, a Madison-based manufacturer of RFID tracking products for the healthcare industry. Sandy, an HR manager, is putting her lunch in the breakroom fridge.

"Wow, Frank!" Sandy says. "Isn't losers is a little strong?"

"I don't think so," Frank barks. Sandy isn't surprised, as Frank is kind of an intense guy and is always free with his opinions.

Frank continues: "Don't those people know that Gov. Walker is doing exactly what he should be doing? He's balancing a budget out of control. And collective bargaining? Unions kill jobs and protect lazy bums. If we took off work to protest, we'd be fired. I hope Walker gets rid of those damned unions."

Sandy's a little tired of Frank's rants, so she decides to go for it.

"But Frank, is it fair for Walker to put the whole burden on teachers and public employees? I mean, he's already given tax breaks to corporations and doesn't raise taxes on the wealthy a penny. If teachers have to pay more for their benefits, shouldn't those who can afford it most pay something too? If it's 'shared sacrifice,' shouldn't it be shared by those on the top?"

"Are you kidding?" Frank nearly explodes. "You've got to be kidding! Sandy, you know that lowering taxes always raises revenue. Increase taxes on the productive members of society, and this fragile economy will tank! Even John Kennedy lowered taxes during a recession. I mean, that's just basic economics."

Sandy has been reading a lot about this recently, so she's prepared.

"Funny that you bring up John Kennedy, Frank. Yes, he lowered taxes—from 92% to 75%. The top tax rate was 92% throughout the 1950s, a time when the country really prospered. Kennedy brought them down to 75% on incomes over $3 million in today's dollars. Kind of puts that 'Kennedy lowered taxes' stuff in perspective, don't you think?"

Frank stands silent for a moment, so Sandy continues.

"It also puts in perspective Obama's wanting to raise the top tax rate from 35% to 39.5%, where it was during the Clinton years. Hardly 'socialism' in the grand scheme of things. And since shared sacrifice implies shared-by-all, I don't see any reason why Walker doesn't ask Wisconsin's wealthiest citizens to share a little too."


Frank and Sandy had to go to their offices and get to work, but their debate isn't over—not by a long shot. Frank is collecting his thoughts, preparing his riposte. And Sandy feels kind of proud of herself for speaking up. We'll catch them again in an upcoming post.

Meanwhile, how are we to understand their conversation?

Like all of us, Frank and Sandy have come to their beliefs, values, and choices based on a complex of stories, or "narratives." Scenes, characters, and plots in our memories engage in an interplay with the world we experience: We interpret present events in light of the stories we know; these new interpretations join the complex of stories through which we understand the future.

As I have communicated elsewhere in this blog, two stories run deep in Americans' understanding of what America is all about, expressed as "The American Dream." One, the free-enterprise narrative, has enjoyed near total dominance for more than 30 years. Frank believes it wholeheartedly.

The other, the fair-play narrative, has been nearly exiled from public opinion, inhabiting only far corners of left-wing academia and advocacy. Sandy considers herself a moderate and would laugh at the suggestion that she's "left wing." But she's growing weary of feeling like no matter how hard she works, she can't get ahead. She feels empathy for the teachers, police, firefighters, and state workers protesting at the state capital in Madison.

Maybe Walker's overreach is a setting a scene where the fair-play storyline will ring true among a broad group of Americans—people like Sandy—once again.

We shall see. Stay tuned.

Mar 6, 2011

A letter to Gov. Walker

Mr. Governor,

I'm what most people would call a moderate Democrat, so feel free to interpret my comments in that light. But I am also a citizen of Wisconsin, and I don't want our state to fail. I'm sure you don't either. I'm sure your budget proposals stem from your desire to advance our state's health over the long term. And so, as a moderately left-of-center communications expert, I'd like to offer a suggestion to help you succeed in the interest of Wisconsin's well-being.

You say that your budget proposal's deep cuts to public education, shared revenue, environmental programs, and tax credits for the poor are necessary to ensure Wisconsin's future fiscal health. You also say public-union rights long enjoyed in Wisconsin—such as collective bargaining, mandatory membership, and automatic dues payment—must be eliminated in order to give local governments the "tools" and "flexibility" to operate in the context of reduced state aid without having to impose layoffs.

Your opponents have, for the most part, pledged to give you what you want on the former; they have vigorously opposed your plan for the latter. They are winning that communications battle. Every poll shows that strong majorities support your quest for fiscal health but oppose restrictions on workers' rights. You ignore this broad public sentiment at your peril.

You are most likely hearing fellow ultra-conservatives urging you to stand strong and refuse to budge on these restrictions, as lessening the power of unions in general and public unions in particular will advance the ultra-conservative cause. Given your history and temperament, these recommendations undoubtedly confirm your impulses. But if you want to succeed in advancing your vision, you should resist this narrative. It appeals only to partisans on one side of the debate. It alienates the center that overwhelmingly elected you and your Republican compatriots in the assembly and the senate—and can overwhelmingly turn you out.

If you are to move Wisconsin closer to your vision, you must be a statesman, not a CEO. Chief executives of businesses must focus on this quarter's shareholder value, maximizing profits using whatever means are required. And they give orders, which subordinates must obey or be fired. Statesmen don't have that option. They must focus on a state's long-term health, which includes much more than reaching a 0 balance on a spreadsheet.

You probably will respond to that distinction by claiming that all of your proposals serve Wisconsin's long term interests, as you see them. Fair enough. I disagree, but that's not the point of this appeal.

If you are to be a statesman and not a CEO, you are obligated to take into account more than your own ideas of reasonableness, more than your own values. You must, to the degree you are able, prevent the kind of conflict our state is experiencing in no small part because of your own rigidity.

So here's my suggestion, given in good faith and with hope for settling our current crisis: I propose that you schedule another "fireside chat" and say the following:

"I love Wisconsin, and the conflict ripping us apart isn't good for our state. I take responsibility for my part in this conflict, as I know my budget proposals represent a significant and sweeping change in direction. You have, with your votes, placed me in a position of leadership. My proposals reflect my sincere beliefs about what is best for our state in the short-term and for the future.

"However, I must lead—even when leading requires me to accept less than what I believe is ideal. Therefore, I have decided to propose a principled compromise designed to advance our fiscal health while listening to the values of many of you concerning our state's tradition of union rights. I will remove all restrictions on union operations from my budget-repair bill and from my biennial budget. I will trust that our public unions will fulfill their pledge to accept all of the budget's fiscal provisions, even those that require painful sacrifice on the part of public employees, public education, and other state expenditures.

"With this compromise, our senators and those protesting at the capitol can return home. And Wisconsin can return to engaging in arguments over ideas, rather than a conflict that is crippling us and leaving me with no alternative but to impose layoffs. Make no mistake, I cannot in good conscience propose a budget that does not address our fiscal problems. As I have said repeatedly, we are broke. All of us must take that as seriously as the demands to take seriously our Wisconsin tradition of union rights.

"I will submit a new budget bill with the controversial union provisions removed. Once I have done that, I urge the senators to return so that we can move forward to fix our state's fiscal issues together in the interest of all Wisconsinites."

Governor Walker, say that and you will win the narrative battle. You will be hailed statewide and nationally as a conservative statesman, strong enough to stand for fiscal responsibility and strong enough to reach a hand across the aisle to do so. Fail to say that, and you will be decried as a pariah, too weak in your rigidity to understand the context and work within it to accomplish your goals.

Not budging, to use your words, will work well for us Democrats in the next election cycle. But it won't work well for our state's health. Which should be more important for both Democrats and Republicans than political strategy.

Rings true to me, Governor Walker. And you?

Feb 25, 2011

It ain't about budgets; it's about ideology.

If Gov. Walker's "Budget Repair Bill" were really about repairing the Wisconsin state budget, opponents argue, he would have accepted public-union concessions and dropped the controversial measure severely limiting collective bargaining rights.

Nothing doing, Walker and his supporters retort. Collective bargaining is by nature hostile to balanced budgets. "It costs taxpayers serious money," Walker said during his Feb. 22 televised (and ironically named) fireside chat.

Walker's experience as Milwaukee county executive taught him an important lesson: Stubborn unions armed with collective bargaining prevent righteous conservatives (like Walker) from exercising fiscal responsibility. Now that he's duly elected governor—with duly elected huge Republican margins in the Wisconsin senate and assembly—well, now those union thugs are going to learn what stubborn really means.

But is Walker's hypothesis true? Does collective bargaining as such prevent fiscal responsibility?

Turns out that we can do a pretty good social-science experiment to find out. There are 50 states in the union. Some require collective bargaining for public employees. Some allow it. Some outlaw it. All but six will run deficits in 2011.

Is there a connection? If Walker's hypothesis is true, it's reasonable to expect that a state's fiscal condition would correlate with its public employees' collective-bargaining rights.

From Walker's point of view, here's the hypothesis: On average, states requiring collective-bargaining with public employees will be in worse fiscal condition than states either allowing or outlawing such rights.

Now let's "operationalize" (oooh, I love the language of social science) the experiment. We'll correlate each state's 2011 budget shortfall with each state's collective bargaining laws. If the hypothesis is correct, states outlawing collective bargaining should have lower average deficits than the other states.

I got each state's collective-bargaining laws from James Joyner's Outside the Beltway blog. He got the info from Josh Marshall on TPM. I got each state's 2011 budget shortfall from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. I ran a simple pivot table to get the correlations. Here are the results:

In states where
collective bargaining is
the 2011 budget
deficit averages:

Plus, of the six states with balanced budgets, none outlaws collective bargaining. Three require it; three allow it.

What's the takeaway? Collective bargaining doesn't cost taxpayers serious money in any special way. Which demonstrates that Walker's antipathy to collective bargaining has nothing to do with budgets; it's about ideology.

Walker is no conservative. The first principle of classic conservatism is a respect for a people's customs and a mistrust of a person's abstract schemes. Walker is a radical ideologue. He sees himself as a modern-day Isaiah, calling down the fire of Jehovah on the prophets of Baal.

"This is our moment," Walker said to the prank caller pretending to be billionaire ultra-conservative David Koch. "This is our time to change the course of history."

Hang on, Wisconsinites. You chose the bus. Get ready for the ride.

Feb 18, 2011

Should public-sector employees have the right to organize?

I live in Madison, so I’m in the thick of the protests that are now national news. I am both a full-time and a part-time public-sector employee. I’m a senior editor at UW-Madison; I teach part-time at Madison College. Gov. Walker’s bill would cut my net pay about 8.5%.

But paying more for my benefits has nothing to do with my opposition. As a reasonable person, I’m able to look at the situation and make a sacrifice if necessary. I’m protesting because the bill effectively ends collective bargaining for every public union except the few that supported Walker in the election.

Unfortunately, national coverage of the protest has focused on the easy story rather than the crucial one.

This morning Joe Scarborough went into an astonishingly ill-informed, 10-minute rant about teachers (and by implication, other public employees).

“Children are not learning in Wisconsin today,” Joe railed, “because teachers don’t want to pay the same … money for benefits that the rest of Americans have to pay. How sick is that?”

I immediately sent Morning Joe a message explaining how the show’s host completely missed the point. 

About a minute later, with much less bravado, Joe said, “One of the big things going on in Wisconsin is that the governor is trying to eliminate collective bargaining, which raises a much larger question: Should public unions have collective bargaining?”

To that question—the crux of the issue—Walker says no. I say yes.

During a discussion on the issue on my Facebook wall, a friend posted: “Kyle, it’s important to remember that without the private sector, there cannot be a public sector.”

“Agreed,” I replied, “but it’s equally important to remember that without the public sector, there cannot be a private sector—at least not a civilized one.“

If there were not educators teaching us, the private sector would have no customers who could read well enough to buy its products. If there were no police and firefighters protecting us, families would have no hope of feeling safe in their homes. If there were no inspectors keeping our food and buildings safe, we couldn’t go to the grocery store without fear. No roads, no traffic lights, no courts, no high-end research.

No America as we know it.

“The public sector needs to answer and be accountable to the people,” another friend said. “On what grounds do public employees feel that they have the right to bargain with taxpayer funded positions?”

The question assumes that public employees are in a fundamentally different position vis a vis their employers than private-sector employees. And that is the case only if public-sector employment depends on the private sector in some special way.

I deny it. I say that the public sector depends on the private sector no more or less than the private sector depends on the public sector. They are equally important and equally important to each other. Two strands in the helix of America’s DNA.

We used to know this. We’ve forgotten it because for a generation we’ve been steeped almost exclusively in a radical free-enterprise storyline that tells us “government is the problem, not the solution.”

No, we—private sector and public sector—are both the problem and the solution. Pitting one sector against the other is easy but counter-productive. We need each other, so we need to be reasonable. Stripping public employees of the right to negotiate working conditions with a unified voice does violence to both America's and Wisconsin's traditions of fair play.

Rings true to me. And you?